Why Spencer Turnbull’s no-hitter for Detroit Tigers is only the beginning: ‘I belong here’

Detroit Free Press

It was April 26, 2012.

Alabama freshman Spencer Turnbull stood atop the pitcher’s mound, mowing down South Carolina’s offense. He had a no-hitter rolling through seven innings, but the game was suspended in the top of the eighth because of lightning in Columbia, South Carolina.

He missed out on a chance at a historic feat.

“Up until that moment, I knew that I potentially could be good, but I didn’t really know how good, didn’t know how I compared to other people or what the next level might be like,” Turnbull said early Wednesday morning. “But that was kind of the moment I was like, ‘I can really do this. I feel like I’m meant to do this.'”

Nine years later, nothing got in Turnbull’s way.

The Detroit Tigers right-hander threw a no-hitter in Tuesday’s 5-0 win against Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park. It is the franchise’s eighth no-hitter and Turnbull is the sixth different Tiger to complete the feat. The last was Justin Verlander in 2011.

It’s the fifth no-hitter of the 2021 season.

“Just a dream come true,” Turnbull said. “Probably the best day of my life.”

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Turnbull is 28 years old, but he is young in his development. He has taken significant steps forward throughout his four-year MLB career — from 17 losses in 2019, worst in the majors that year, to becoming an expected “frontline pitcher”  based on his improved 2020 campaign.

Recently, Turnbull has started to build mental fortitude, which was on full display against the Mariners. He doesn’t shy away from pounding the strike zone. He trusts his preparation and his pitches. Walks don’t spiral into runs as often as they used to. He isn’t afraid of failure anymore.

“I definitely feel like I belong here, for sure,” Turnbull said. “There have been a lot of challenges and hurdles I’ve had to overcome to get here, and I’ve had to have a lot of patience. But I wouldn’t change any step of the journey. Hopefully, going to continue to do this for a long time.”

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One of the biggest battles along the way: Throwing strikes.

Turnbull threw 24 first-pitch strikes to his 29 batters faced. He earned 19 swings and misses, 12 with his four-seam fastball. He struck out nine and generated 11 ground-ball outs. His two walks — one in the fourth, the other in the ninth — didn’t rattle him while throwing 77 of his 117 pitches for strikes.

“Staying in the strike zone, that’s a big key for him,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “He’s been talking about it since the beginning of spring training. He wanted to be relentless as a strike thrower with a purpose and not just allow these innings to spiral out of control. We feel like he’s in complete control when he’s pounding the strike zone.”

“The whole night, I was like, ‘I’m not going to be afraid to make any pitches,'” Turnbull said. “‘I’m not going to second guess or doubt or have any fear about anything. I’m just going to attack and stay in that mindset.’ I just wanted to stay aggressive. I didn’t want to beat myself. I wanted them to beat me.”

After the first inning, a group of fans behind the Tigers’ dugout barked at Turnbull.

“Oh, you’re the guy pitching tonight,” one of them yelled.

“Yeah,” Turnbull said.

“You’re throwing a no-hitter,” they responded.

“All right, man,” Turnbull said, with only three outs to his name at the time. Once the no-hitter was complete, Turnbull made eye contact with those same fans.

He shouted, “You guys called it!”

[ Spencer Turnbull throws a no-hitter: What it sounded like ]

Turnbull’s first test came in the fourth inning, when he walked Jarred Kelenic on five pitches. Mitch Haniger flied out to center field, and Kyle Seager struck out on Turnbull’s curveball. After Kelenic stole second base to advance into scoring position, he sent down Kyle Lewis — the reigning American League Rookie of the Year — with his fastball.

“It got to a point, I think the last four innings, I don’t know if he shook (me off) one time,” said catcher Eric Haase, after just his 13th career start behind the plate and ninth for the Tigers. “We were just in really great synch, and whatever I was putting down, he was throwing and he was executing. It made my job really easy.”

Turnbull induced weak contact throughout his no-hitter. He battled for nine pitches with Jose Marmolejos in the bottom of the ninth inning but issued a leadoff walk. He struck out two of the next three batters to make history.

Haniger struck out on three pitches to end the game. Turnbull got the first strike with a 96 mph sinker. He got his second strike as Haniger swung past an 84 mph slider. The final pitch — a 95 mph fastball — was tipped into the Haase’s glove.

“That last at-bat, not only did I want to make my nastiest pitches, but I wanted to execute them as perfectly as possible,” Turnbull said. “I was able to. That first sinker down and in was a good pitch to get ahead, and I threw one of my better sliders all night. And then that last four-seamer kind of opened away, kind of cut a little bit. Exactly what I wanted to do with it. Just threw it as hard as I could, whatever I had left. Emptied the take on that one.”

In the seventh inning, Turnbull got help from third baseman Jeimer Candelario. Haniger scorched a fastball with a 108.4 mph exit velocity, and the ball bounced just in front of Candelario. He made a quick pick with his glove and fired to first baseman Miguel Cabrera to beat the runner by a step.

“I think this is my night,” Turnbull said he thought to himself, after Candelario’s stellar play. “I’m just going to keep going. Hopefully, I can finish it.”

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“He gave me a hug and told me that was a nice play,” Candelario said. “It was a special moment for me and for him. … He was locked in.”

“We could all feel it a little bit, especially after Candy’s backhand play against Haniger,” Hinch said. “Now the don’t talk about it phase of the no-hitter started in the dugout, and we just started coting outs.”

Once Haniger struck out to complete the masterpiece, Turnbull pumped his right fist — the one that worked all the magic — and caught a leaping Haase, who charged to the mound like bull. His teammates mobbed him, and then they took turns hugging him. Jake Rogers engulfed Turnbull’s face with shaving cream, followed by baby power and a beer shower.

What does Turnbull think these memories will do for his confidence?

“I definitely don’t think it’s going to hurt,” he said, laughing.

He feels the same way he felt after his weather-corrupted attempt at a no-hitter as a freshman in college.

There’s surely much more to come.

“I’ve always had the stuff,” Turnbull said. “It was more the consistency. There’s a whole other side of the mental game, knowing that even if you don’t have your best stuff, you can still attack and get the job done. … I’ve matured.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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